It could have been minutes, days, weeks, or years since Yingpei awoke in the darkness alone. He wondered if he had died and gone to the realm of nothing, though he couldn’t recall an accident or anything that could have ended his life.
His last clear memory was being with his sisters in their mother’s courtyard and watching the young phoenix prince fly in graceful loops overhead. The dazzling golden wings, Yingpei had fancied at first sight. He asked if he could keep the gilded bird as a pet. No sooner had the words left his lips when Sister Ying’er caught the showoff phoenix by its long tail feathers with her magic rope in a single throw, and what a joyful time the children were having with their new golden kite until the phoenix’s mother came and scolded them for being naughty. She threatened to turn the children into chickens with a curse.
Scolded for being naughty? Punishment by a spell? Had the Phoenix queen kept to her word and turned him into an egg? Or worse, maybe he was invisible again as he was before Mother came to Nine Heavens? The thought of not being seen again made the boy whimper and cry into darkness.
“Mama.” He whimpered until he felt the soft, comforting fingertips lightly caressing his face. The sensation of touch meant many things, but mostly that he wasn’t alone, and what a relief it was to open his eyes and see his sisters quietly sitting on opposite sides of his bed.
Thankful to be awake. He rubbed the last remnants of sleep from his drowsy eyes with two balled fists and asked confusedly, “Jiejie. What happened? Did Yingpei die, and you brought me back with a magical elixir from Zhe Yan?”
Changchang smiled wide, somewhat motherly, shaking her head, still stroking his baby face, “No, Yingpei. We didn’t die. We were all in the shadow realm.”
Shadow realm? Her reply only raised more questions in the boy. He wondered, What was this strange realm he had never heard of before? Why did he end up there? What did he have to do to never return to that place of loneliness?
Sister Changchang giggled as she seemly read his mind and his concerns. She scrunched her face mirroring Yingpei’s facial expression, and explained further. “Yingpei, this won’t make any sense, but take it for what it is. We exist because of a mortal.”
Yingpei’s eyes grew round like saucers. “A mortal?”
“We, immortals, are great deities but powerless unless someone believes. Her belief and passion brought us to life. So we linger until she, Unni, is ready. We wait in the shadowland in her mind until the mortal rereleases us.”
Changchang paused to find a better, more simplified explanation that could logically answer his questions when Ying’er grumpily mumbled as she did most often. “Aya, Changchang, you make everything overly complicated. Look, Yingpei, what happens when you cover your eyes with your hands? You see nothing. This foolish mortal chose to cover her eyes and tried to forget us. Ignorance is bliss.”
Yingpei frowned, increasingly perplexed, and newfound fear made his tummy hurt. It scared him to learn that his fate lay in a weak mortal’s hands. He shivered as if chilled. What a frighting and horrific thought indeed.
“I don’t like her at all. I don’t like this undisciplined mortal who only tells our story on her terms.” He pouted, sticking, pursing his lips out like a duck. “Why can’t we lock the human in the pagoda with the monster and teach her a lesson?”
The siblings snickered except Ying’er the stone-faced princess. With a quick, sharp snap of the scroll closing in her lap, Ying’er sighed once, then twice with shrugged shoulders bored. “This conversation is mundane and will have to wait. Mortals are ever so fickle, and we have things to do while we can. Who knows when she will decide to cover her eyes again?”
“I have an idea. No eyes to cover? Why can’t we cut out her eyes so the mortal forever depends on us?” Yingpei offered an excellent solution in his mind but regretted it instantly when second, Jiejie gasped aloud and barked, “Seriously, Yingpei?! What is with the weird men in this family and their practice of stealing innocent people’s eyes?”
Rising off the bed and straightening her dress, Ying’er muttered in a judgy tone. “And we all know who started that disgusting little custom of moving one’s eyes from here to there.” Yingpei heard his second sister faintly curse under her breath while subconsciously pressing, with saliva-damped fingers forcibly willing the bouncy curls at her temples to flatten and behave without success.
Jiejie didn’t have to say the words. He caught the resentment in her voice whenever their father was brought up in conversation. With a passion to which she could never fully explain how she despised the unruly loops passed down to them from Heavenly Lord. Still, Yingpei, even in his childish, naive mind, understood second Jiejie’s dislike towards their biological father, and something as simple as an inconvenient lock of hair to her was much more.
The story continues…
Some events occur in one’s life that forever change them. For me, this was the day. Much has happened in one moment than I have experienced in my entire life, and I know these unforgettable scenes will replay in my head until I die. Even possibly haunt me in the afterlife.
The morning started as the days prior. We awoke early and had a light breakfast. Knowing we wouldn’t be stopping much, I took a walk to stretch my legs to prepare for the long day ahead. During this stroll, I discovered a plethora of fresh, plump raspberries when the oddest pinching pain stirred in my lower abdomen. The pain.. no, it was more like discomfort. It wasn’t enough to stop me in my quest for nature’s sweet treats until Ye Hua appeared looking as grouchy as he did anytime I wandered away from the group, but today, his anger disappeared instantly and instead turned into one full of concern.
Thrusting and displaying my prize, the plump fruit in my stained palms, I was just about to apologize for wandering away when Ye Hua sharply cut me off and asked in a low voice, “Are you hurt?” He asked while his nervous gaze moved to the lower part of my dress. Instinctively my eyes followed where his gaze landed, and to my surprise, there was a growing puddle of blood coming from me, staining my dress back, and front like a fat droplet of ink pooling, soaking everything in its path.
“Oh no.” Was all I could utter before crouching to hide my lower body. Sudden heat from embarrassment traveled throughout my entire body before settling on my reddened face, and I could barely get the words out. Stammering, I call out, “I’m fine. Please go away. I need a few minutes.” I practically begged him to go when Ye Hua asked.. no he demanded, “Qian Qian, is this your first? Hasn’t anyone spoken..explained this to you?” Then he paused and spoke without emotion as if we hadn’t spent the last six weeks together, as if he didn’t know how I felt about him. He stated, “This is a good thing. You’ll be able to give Mo Yuan children immediately.”
Oh my God. The raspberries fall from my hands when I brace myself because I’m either going to faint or vomit at the prospect of becoming a baby-sprouting slave. I feel like nothing but a breeding cow. Was that all I was to Ye Hua? To everyone? Suddenly I’m questioning the choices others have made for me in my life. Nobody asked me if I wanted to be the Empress. Never once did anyone ask what I wanted from my life. Now here I am, bleeding all over myself in front of the man I want yet can’t have and call it a last ditch effort when I ask…no, I plead with him.
“Ye Hua, this isn’t what I want. Please hear me out. I know this is improper even sinful, but I can’t ignore my heart’s desire. I don’t want this life of being a wife to a man married to hundreds. I never asked for this and I will give everything away. My family, the throne, even my name if you will take me away. I will be…I want to be your wife. Please, Ye Hua, I’ll be the best wife. I’ll behave and stop doing things that annoy you. You, Ali, and me..”
My confession of love hitches, dying in my dry mouth as Ye Hua’s eyes narrow and his expression hardened when he spat, “A-li can’t enter the palace. If you insist on taking him, he will become nothing but a eunuch or slave. ” Now calling me by title as if to create distance, with callous words much sharper than any dagger, he cuts and wounds me deeper. “Empress, grow up. I’m starting to think you are unworthy of my brother and I’m not a traitor. Terms like loyalty and virtue mean something to me.”
Now looking everywhere but at me. My body tenses defensively, and I know he is about to finish me off with another round of insults when horse galloping sounds reach both our ears. Following the thumping sound, it’s the black and red banners that the small army carries. Men carrying my father’s banner circle us. The armed men dismounted respectfully, bowed to Ye Hua, and whispered something that made Ye Hua pale. He left me squatting there without a single look back, reminding me of my place and forever changing me from the hopeful lovestruck girl I was a few minutes prior to this woman who has been cast aside then it finally hit me, almost leaving me breathless and another wave of nausea overcomes me as reality sets in. This is my life. To him, I wasn’t worth even one look back… I meant nothing to him.
To be continued…